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Unai Emery at Villarreal - tactical analysis tactics

Unai Emery at Aston Villa: What can we expect in his return to England? – tactical analysis

Aston Villa decided to sack Steven Gerrard one week ago after the bad results in the Premier League and the lack of identity on the pitch. Although they started to be a promising team when the former Liverpool player arrived, they have been game by game forgetting that potential shape and intensity that showed in their first matches under Gerrard.

This was very exciting for lots of Villa’s fans that truly believed that with the right transfer window things were absolutely going to get better. Bringing six new players and signing Phillipe Coutinho and Robin Olsen on long-term contracts would be big movements, however, when you see the name and the positions they look for, some things had and haven’t clicked. 31-year-old Diego Carlos suffered a season-long injury, Leander Dendoncker, Jan Bednarek or Ludwig Augustinsson don’t look like top signings besides 22-year-old special talent, Boubacar Kamara.

Villa lacked squad depth and mostly between all the defensive lines of the team, however, signing Diego Carlos was kind of a coup, but they needed more. Steven Gerrard didn’t get the best form of this team since the start of the 2022/23 campaign. Currently, they sit in the 15th position of the league table, losing six matches, including a 3-0 thrashing at Fulham, a 3-1 against Crystal Palace or a 2-0 loss against Bournemouth on the opening day. Villa won and draw the other 3; They scored 11 goals, ranking fourth as the fewest goals scored in the season, conceding 16 goals as well.

Unai Emery first rejected Newcastle back in November when he decided to stick with Villarreal for at least one more year, with clear goals of what they could achieve in the UEFA Champions League. After one of the biggest fairy tales in the 20/21 Europa League, they invested in their squad, and the majority of the vital players stayed with the club and were ready for the best club competition in the world. Emery showed once again the kind of European monster he is with his clubs, nevertheless, it’s no secret that he has an image to clean at the English Premier League.

The Premier League is still a challenge for the former-Arsenal coach who didn’t tick the right boxes as he did in other teams like Sevilla or his recent Villarreal which somehow finished 7th in the league under Emery, but lifted the Europa League and were 45 minutes away from a Champions League final, similar to what they lived in 2006 against Arsenal, being defeated in the penalty-shootout after Argentinian legend Riquelme miss the decisive shoot.

This tactical analysis piece will be a short team scout report of Unai Emery and his tactics at Villarreal. It will also be an analysis of what he can expect inside the Aston Villa squad and which positions he should be investing in the next transfer window.

Unai Emery profile

Emery has been constantly working inside a philosophy of calm and patient possession in the first stages of the build-up trying to attract the first line of pressure, with several movements from his strikers that normally set up in doubles and aggressive runs to break the lines from one of his central-midfielders. Something to admire about the Spaniard is the change of mentality he has given to his teams, especially the Spanish ones. His entire squad commits to playing the way he wants, and sometimes have to change to a low block to adapt to high-risk situations, doing it without asking.

However, Emery has also shown inside his game model the importance of ball-playing centre-backs that can play long from the back or connect between the lines with far players. Wingers and full-backs have also been key in Emery’s system, and if we start to take a look back at his Villarreal, we would find players like Yeremy Pino or Giovanni Lo Celso with very different profiles, but with assigned roles that usually take the half-spaces to appear, leaving the outside for explosive full-backs such as Pervis Estupiñán or Alberto Moreno if we go backwards at his Sevilla spell.

In the Pizza Chart below we can see how Villarreal have been doing at the start of the 2022/23 season. Although they are sitting 7th in the league table, this viz still shows us a great sign of how Emery likes his teams to play: Mid-block, low high-pressing style, low percentage of crosses, looking to create chances from key and through passes as well as carrying the ball to the final third. As a team that sets up in the middle third looking to close spaces, they have been struggling in defence, registering too many high goal-scoring chances. Gerónimo Rulli lately has been the hero with his saves.

As we can see as well, Villarreal are commonly placed in the final third and even in the opposition’s penalty box, however they haven’t been turning ball dominance into high-goal-scoring opportunities. This is an indicator of a lack of ideas in attack to break defensive blocks.

Normally, Emery likes to place his team on the pitch inside a very mobile and role-playing system 4-4-2 that has from a ball-playing centre-back to an explosive centre-forward exploiting the channels. Breaking it down from the back four, Villarreal showed different type of players in each position and the kind of roles he assigned for each one.

Unai Emery at Villarreal - tactical analysis tactics

Gerónimo Rulli showed great ability to pass the ball from the back and save his team when they needed it, so Emery looks to have a very complete player in the goal. Starting with the right-back, Juan Foyth, the South American was the ace up his sleeve. He could play centre-back in a back-three, as a wing-back and normally as a full-back in a back-four. Foyth tends to stay behind to form a back-three and provide protection and security to his defensive line as many players went up to attack, including midfielders.

The centre-backs shared some attributes, good passing skills, one more defensively correct than the other, and one more responsible for breaking the lines with his good ball-control, that was Pau Torres. On the left they have ‘the bullet’ Pervis Estupiñán, bringing the attacking threat with his pace and dribbling technique in the middle and final third.

The midfield was the key for Emery, as some of them were very versatile to adapt in different zones of the pitch and roles, to offer protection, ball progression or retention of the ball. Giovanni Lo Celso was another ace, as he would play second-striker, inverted winger, ‘8’ in a 4-3-3 and more. He normally started as a right-winger, joining the midfield. The double-pivot was a very synergic and coordinated one with the likes of Etienne Capoue and Dani Parejo who provided excellent height exchanges and both had very decent under-pressure management, with one being more aggressive to run and break lines like Capoue, where Parejo was a more sensitive-touch player, looking to switch the play.

Here, we are seeing an example of how Giovanni Lo Celso supports his team in possession, as he goes out from wide to the middle, leaving all the wing to his full-back that can make several runs in behind. The Argentinian makes a midfield three, joining Parejo and Capoue. However he’s a very mobile and functional player that likes to move throughout the pitch providing first-time passes and dribbling skills to escape from small spaces to then start rapid attacks switching the play or making through passes.

Unai Emery at Villarreal - tactical analysis tactics

Another thing we can massively see in Villarreal is how Dani Parejo helps his team to bait and beat the high press. What we are watching is the Europa League semi-finals where Arsenal deploy aggressive and fearless pressing, looking to block the passing circuits with the Spanish midfielders.

Parejo shows great ability not only with his great technique, switching play or finding far players with long balls but also for how he’s able to escape from the press with this kind of tools like the direct pass to the wing in the half-turn. The Spaniard is kind of a deep-lying-playmaker, so Emery likes very much that his pivot gets involved in the build-up and can think of playing forward, knocking down the walls the team like to set defensively.

Unai Emery at Villarreal - tactical analysis tactics

This image decomposes the Villarreal shape inside a match. Against Cádiz, their problems to score goals and not being that dangerous were seen, however, it helps us to show how Emery liked his team to shape in the first part of the build-up. Utilization of the goalkeeper forming a back-three with wide centre-backs, both full-backs high on the pitch looking to appear free and carry the ball, Parejo and Capoue in the double pivot, the second one pulled more to the right-hand-side where he joined his centre-backs, inverted wingers and one of the centre-forwards dropping off to drag defenders and the other one looking to use that space are all mechanisms of an Emery team.

Unai Emery at Villarreal - tactical analysis tactics

The striker partnership and left-winger was the peak of the team, with players like Yeremy Pino, Arnaut Danjuma and Gerard Moreno who could play in every position and role in the forward line that Emery would ask. Young Pino showed great 1v1 dribbling skills, inside play with quick-armed shots looking for the far-corner, but also being accompanied by the excellent movements from Moreno who has a magnificent sense of what zones he has to drop off, which former Bournemouth player Danjuma read well to attack those free spaces.

We can see how Gérard Moreno likes to contribute in possession with his off-the-ball movements and his controls and first-time passes, dropping to the double-pivot looking to receive an inside pass from the right-back. One of the centre-forwards from Emery’s team has to be this mobile and intelligent to retain possession at this zones.

Unai Emery at Villarreal - tactical analysis tactics

In the attacking third, Villarreal liked very much the surprising moves from behind their midfielders. Etienne Capoue was the one to get to the penalty box, where thanks to his height and strong build, he could compete with tough players inside.

Against Liverpool, they demonstrate how chameleonic and multi-faceted they could be, as an attacking threat can also come from crosses. This time, they were attacking the back-post because Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson lack awareness in this zone. Villarreal likes to get lots of players in the penalty area too, including two strikers, and both wingers. As we can see below, Capoue has already made the run for a brilliant cross delivered by his full-back, which he’s going to head sideways to Boulaye Dia, who scored the 1-0.

This picture can also show us the right-back role, which Juan Foyth understands perfectly and he executed greatly where in the attacking phase he’s constantly exchanging channels from the wide to the inside, making runs with the ball, looking to break the lines with his passes, and at the same time, providing security to the high block.

Unai Emery at Villarreal - tactical analysis tactics

Defensively, Villarreal weren’t the most regular team, as they received many goals in the 20/21 season, being the one to concede the most among the top-seven of the league, as well as the 3rd one in the following season. However they were slightly better. Emery wanted his team to play in a rigid mid-block that sometimes had issues with the separations between the midfield and defense line, that teams exploited with players that could make through-passes to others who could receive and turn there.

Aston Villa squad and what to expect

With the 7th largest squad in the league, Aston Villa could be very excited about having one of the best coaches in the world, but also being nervous about how he can make a comeback into a competition that turned very tough for him to manage, even though his Villarreal two-and-a-half-year spell has been very good for his career and surely things are going to change for him in the Premier League.

Villa has started the campaign being a different team in the intense and aggressive pressing they have before, lacking chance-creation, ball dominance and conceding high-goal-scoring opportunities, a very bad sight for the team.

Unai Emery at Villarreal - tactical analysis tactics

Thinking of a 4-4-2, the former Valencia head coach could have some issues with the footwork of Emiliano Martínez, who hasn’t been the best under pressure, as he normally tries to hit it long to skip steps in possession. In other terms, he has shown why he’s capable of being a great and top goalkeeper with his shot-stopping capacity, not only in-game but against penalties too.  It should be interesting what Emery would do with the Argentinian. Moving on to the back four, he would have to start his project without counting Diego Carlos, as he’s been out for up to nine months, and already two have been consumed.

In this figure below, we can see the methods Emery liked to use against high-pressing teams, where Gerónimo Rulli frequently was looking to send the ball long or chipped it to the free full-back, this could be a distribution range that Martínez could fit.

Unai Emery at Villarreal - tactical analysis tactics

Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings and Jan Bednarek are the best options at the centre of the defense, where Villa surely should be looking at the January transfer window. Three of them possess good passing skills, but they have been in a long decline in their defensive aptitudes. As Emery showed at Villarreal that he wants a bit of a modern and traditional player in this line, again several things should change soon at Villa Park. Full-backs are well-covered with Lucas Digne and Matty Cash who both offer great attacking skills and build-up intelligence to play out from the back.

The midfield, the most important area of Emery’s team, is well-covered but also struggling to hit the form they show in the past. Here we can see names like John McGinn or Douglas Luiz who haven’t been the same, new signings Leander Dendoncker and Boubacar Kamara had been affected directly by team context, and the team keeps waiting for the talent of Morgan Sanson to not be thrown away by injuries. This is where Jacob Ramsey, probably Villa’s brightest talent enters the chat and makes himself a key player to develop at Unai’s next team. His excellent work-rate, off-the-ball movements going forward and confidence in small spaces should be already on the Spaniard shortlist.

He could easily play alongside Boubacar Kamara or Leander Dendoncker who surely would start at the defensive-midfielder role, working step by step those coordinated exchanges Capoue and Parejo showed brilliantly last season.

However, the former Marseille player can also play as a centre-back so he could play very much with his position. Moving onto the wings, Emiliano Buendía is the perfect example of similarity when talking about Lo Celso. The Argentinian player has that attacking-midfielder soul that helps in the first passes and then progresses thanks to his dribbling and bravery to break lines, as well as his capacity to play inverted. That role could be perform by Phillipe Coutinho too, changing roles to the other side of the pitch.

On the other wing, Ollie Watkins or Leon Bailey could be that aggressive winger running to the box as Pino was. However, they lack depth in this zone so they might start looking at what type of player Emery would love to see here.

Finally, Danny Ings and already mentioned Ollie Watkins can offer what Danjuma and Moreno did. Obviously, they were Champions League-level, so the comparisons can be very poor. Despite that, Ings possesses those off-the-ball movements to drop off and take the ball very low on the pitch where Watkins and his energetic playing style can take advantage of spaces created behind Danny.


Aston Villa doesn’t have all the perfect elements to start automatically playing Emery’s idea, although, this is a very rough idea to think about in a season that has already started and with a team that was fighting for relegation back in the 2019/20 season. With the sale of Jack Grealish, Villa was left on a drift, where they payed lots of money for many players that have not even clicked their full potential yet, such as Ings or Buendía.

They need to get back an identity and a football model that allows them to play good football and get results. Emery looks like the right man for this job, as he likes this kind of reconstruction and his experience would demand that. On top of this, he would need time, patience and confidence from the fans and club board.